Avraham Bronstein

Are We Living — Or Are We Dying?

The Hampton Synagogue
Yom Kippur, October 12, 2016

In 1848, newspapers around the world, from the Journal of London to the New York Times reported on the illness of an older woman, well-connected in the diplomatic and political worlds but too closely tied to the big banks for the comfort of many. Some things never change. I am speaking, of course, of Gutle Rothschild, the by-then 95 year old widow of Mayer Amschel Rothschild. The family they had built together was already the stuff of legend, and despite her advanced age she was still a force to be reckoned with, matriarch of one of the world’s most influential families. The record is not clear as to whether or not she suffered pneumonia, but it does note that her doctor said, “Madame, unfortunately, I cannot make you any younger.” At which point she responded, “I do not want you to make me younger; I want you to make me older.”

Perhaps some of you remember the cover story Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel wrote for The Atlantic just about two years ago. He described what he referred to as our “manic desperation to endlessly extend life.” Many more of us will live longer lives than those in previous generations, he explained, but with the compounding effects of physical and mental deterioration and disability. Over the last 50 or so years, he argued, medicine has not helped us age more slowly so much as it has helped us die more slowly.

He writes: “I am not saying that those who want to live as long as possible are unethical or wrong. I am certainly not scorning or dismissing people who want to live on despite their physical and mental limitations. I’m not even trying to convince anyone I’m right.”

He himself, though, is drawing a line at age 75 (he wrote these words at age 57. Now he is 59). At 75, he plans to no longer regularly visit the doctor and refuse all treatments except for pain management. In other words, after he turns 75, the first thing that comes along will likely be the cause of his death.

Reflecting, he notes how having a finish line in mind has helped him shift his focus. Instead of thinking about how to stay alive into older age, he is thinking more about what he wants to accomplish over the next 18 (now 16) years, what he wants to leave behind for his children and grandchildren. Being constantly aware of an end point forces him to more carefully consider the value of his time, and its context in the arc of his lifespan. It reminds him that there is no such thing as life without limits.

It is a challenging essay, on many levels. I can’t endorse his answer, but the question he is asking of himself and of his readers – whether there is a line between living and dying – is a powerful and deeply personal one for us, particularly today. He doesn’t quote it, but I am sure that Emanuel had a particular line from Pirkei Avot in mind, a teaching of the second century Rabbi Eliezer who said:

ושוב יום אחד לפני מיתתך
Do teshuvah, repent one day before your death.

The Talmud records Rabbi Eliezer’s students asking him how one could possibly know, then, when it is time to repent. He clarified, explaining that they should repent every day as it might well be their last day. By doing so, it will turn out that their entire lives, however long they may be, will have been lived deliberately, mindfully, and with introspection and purpose.

Now, I don’t wake up most mornings really thinking that I might die the next day. I’m thinking more about my daily routine, the things I have to do that day, the things coming up on the calendar that week, or the next month, or the project I’ve been working on, or the one I just started. I don’t even think Rabbi Eliezer himself really considered whether each day was his last, either. I’m sure Rabbi Eliezer began endeavors he knew could only be finished months or years later, and I’m sure that he planned on finishing them.

In fact, the reverse is true. It is so important to have goals to work towards, to articulate visions of the future to look forward to. Today we will again reflect on the powerful words:

מי בקיצו ומי לא בקיצו
Who at their appointed time, and who not at their appointed time.

I think we all generally assume that the one who passes away not at their appointed time is someone who dies prematurely, unexpectedly. When we read this line, we reflectively consider the tragedy of someone who leaves this world too soon.

Perhaps, though, those words might also refer to the less dramatic but no less tragic lives of those who live too long, those who remain alive, even active, long after they have spiritually passed away.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heshel wrote of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, one of the great Hasidic Masters of the 19th century, that he and his own teacher would have “frequent meetings with the dead who did not know that they had died.” In a sermon delivered this week back in 1974 at the Jewish Center on Manhattan’s West Side, Rabbi Norman Lamm explained:

Think of it! They encountered spiritless bodies who bought and sold, attended conferences, read papers..,but whose lives had no design, whose busy-ness had no ultimate purpose, whose existence had no unity, who had no value for others  and no goals for themselves and no significance for for the world — ghosts, specters, who had convinced themselves that they were alive, when they were really dead, belonging to neither this world not the next.

Haven’t you ever met such people? I have, and I am sure you have: people walking the street, frequenting the market place, chattering at cocktail parties, concocting deals, greeting you with a perfunctory “how are you”,” and receiving the same inane question in return, never meaning it, never relating, never rising above the dust and grime of life — people who stopped living a long time ago! Echoes without voices, silhouettes without substance, stories without plots.“

Indeed, when we find ourselves locked into routines that stifle us, when we lose the wherewithal to create, to grow, to renew ourselves, when we live day after day on auto-pilot – too distracted, too busy, and too over-committed to even aspire to anything more – part of us has passed away lo b’kitzo, died before our appointed time.

So what Rabbi Eliezer is getting at is that we shouldn’t spend our time thinking about the length of our lifespans, but the depth of our lives. Yom Kippur is our opportunity to step outside the distractions that fill our lives, and really think about why we are here, what it is that we want to accomplish, and what it is that we want to leave behind.

So the question that Yom Kippur challenges us to answer is not “will we live or will we die.” We can’t possibly answer that question anyway. Instead, Yom Kippur asks us “are we living or are we dying” – are we vibrant, creative, and ambitious, or slipping away into boredom, cynicism, and distraction.

I have presented you with two different explanations of the one who passes away lo b’kitzo,” before their appointed time, and they are both tragic – one the person taken from this earth before their time, and the other the one who is alive, but only in a physical, superficial sense. I will conclude with a third interpretation, a more hopeful one, as we prepare to recite the Yizkor service.

There are those whose influence on the world ends at the very moment that they do. They leave no legacy, and no lasting contribution. They are pleasant people while they are here, but when they are gone, they are not missed for long. They can be said to pass away b’kitzo, at their appointed time, with nothing of them lingering afterwards.

But, when we recite Yizkor for our loved ones we affirm that their legacy continues on. We reflect on how much of them is in us, how the lives that they lived continue to shape us, inspire us and guide us, and continue to profoundly impact the world in which we live. This is what the Talmud means when it teaches that righteous people, even in death, are described as alive.

When we invoke the memories of our loved ones, we affirm that they, truly, have not died at their appointed times; their appointed times have come and gone, but they are still here with us, their presence still felt so strongly even if they, themselves, are absent – especially today, especially here in this sanctuary. That is no tragedy; it is a triumph, it is the mark of the supreme accomplishment of a life fully-lived, and a goal for us all to reflect upon and aspire to emulate.

Please rise for the Yizkor service.

About the Author
Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, NY.